Most of the best movies ever made did not win Best Picture Oscars. We're going to spend the whole month at Our Daily Trailer looking at films that should have won but didn't (and quite a few that didn't even get nominated), and I wanted to start things off with one of the most blatant snubbings in the history of the Academy Awards: Francis Ford Coppola's unhinged masterpiece Apocalypse Now.
It seems impossible today, but Kramer vs Kramer, a divorce melodrama (divorce was still a hot topic in 1979), beat Coppola's seminal Vietnam movie. More than that, Robert Benton - a director of such misfires as Billy Bathgate and Nadine - beat Coppola for Best Director. I don't want to make it sound like Kramer vs Kramer is garbage - it isn't - but for Christ's sake, Apocalypse Now is Apocalypse Now! I'm not even sure how you watch these two movies and decide that Kramer is the one to honor.
The snubbing of Apocalypse Now and Coppola in particular are especially depressing in hindsight. Apocalypse Now represents the end of what may be the single greatest filmmaking streak in history, one that begins with The Godfather, continues with The Conversation and The Godfather Part II and then climaxes in the jungles of the Philippines in a shoot that seems to have broken Coppola almost completely. He made many other good movies after Apocalypse Now, but he never again made a great one; the director famously said "This movie isn't about Vietnam, it is Vietnam."
While the movie represents the end of a phase of Coppola's life, it also represents the beginning of a phase of American cultural history. It's one of the first films to truly wrestle with the Vietnam War, a conflict whose end just six years before Apocalypse Now premiered in Cannes was like a fresh wound on the American psyche. The country wouldn't be really ready to get into Vietnam in the arts until Platoon (which did win Best Picture), but Apocalypse Now rubbed our faces in it - or at least a semi-surreal vision of it. In many ways Apocalypse Now feels today less like a Vietnam War movie and more like a fucked up movie about all American wars after WWII, finding a horrible universailty in its Vietnam specifics.
Nobody has ever made a movie like this again - and I mean that nobody has made a movie that is the same as this, and nobody has made a movie in this way. Coppola's descent into madness during the shoot is captured in the extraordinary documentary Hearts of Darkness, and watching that film you wonder how the hell anybody survived this thing (Martin Sheen famously almost did not, suffering a heart attack on location). This movie broke Coppola and it forever changed the way we looked at Marlon Brando, branding him for the rest of his life as Kurtz, the mad bald fat man.
History is a tricky thing to predict, and there's no way that the Oscar voters in 1980 could have known that Apocalypse Now would tiurn out to be immortal. But how did they not see its power? How did they not experience the chaotic majesty, unlike any other movie ever made? How did they not feel the heat coming off the screen? For god's sake, how did they not understand Robert Duvall was, through sheer force of will, planting a flag in pop culture with his few minutes of screen time? Oscar gets it wrong a lot, but it's rare that Oscar gets it this wrong.